I didn’t think when I sat down to write this post that it would end up so long and complicated, but as I reflected on it, I’m truly astonished at the tangle of thoughts and issues that wrap themselves around this mirage of an issue involving the use of Second Life in a writing course.
I had asked students in my second semester online Composition course to follow through on a semester-long writing exercise based on the creation of (and heavy psychological investment in) an avatar, as well as in the whole process of making SL friends. The exercise requires students to then suddenly change the gender and race of their avatars and live through–well, whatever one would live through, documenting all conversations and behaviors.
Today, however, I had a student (a somewhat older student, a mom) express her shock and surprise when she encountered adult-oriented material by accident in SL. Yes, I had forewarned them of these kinds of things, trotting out my stock phrase, “If you can imagine it, it exists in SL, and if you can’t imagine it, that exists too.” But this student felt that some how adult material, even that encountered accidentally, wasn’t “class” any more. Though she didn’t explicitly say it, I know she was wondering, What does sex have to do with a writing course? And Doesn’t the instructor have some obligation to set up boundaries that prevent students from being exposed to such things?
My first and only-in-my-head reaction was something like, “Get over it. It’s cartoon people with cartoon genitals having cartoon sex. If you’ve had sex in RL, this can’t be much of a shock.”
Or can it? Of course the context (theoretically a college writing course) doesn’t immediately strike one as the right environment for a virtual exploration of lust. I can see it from my student’s point of view; she’s serious about getting a grade, getting a degree, finding better employment, and the whole list of American pie ingredients that we call real life. I can’t–I won‘t–blame her for that. Everything in society tells her that that is what she should do with her life if she has the opportunity and the will.
So I wrote back to her, gave her a few tips on how to avoid the sex clubs, the nude beaches, the orgy dungeons. But afterwards I wondered why I did it. I saw myself as having bought into the myth that courses are content-driven phenomena, rather than (no matter what else we do or say to the contrary) experiences in which we must reckon with our experiences, and by which we develop a meaningful relationship to the world.
Why (I kick myself at the lost opportunity, the so-called “teaching moment”) didn’t I encourage this student to write about her experience of shock and surprise? Why didn’t I invite her to wonder more deeply about why she was required to be in Second Life at all? She does wonder about it certainly; but she dismisses her wonderment before she has fully perused it on the grounds that “it is required.”
And what would have happened if, given that I might have had the RL balls, I had asked her to explain just why fantasy explorations sexuality are not relevant to my course? Indeed, are there not some very deeply interesting questions to be asked about the motivations of those who engage in SL sex? What’s the appeal? What is that phenomenon all about? What is it about the art of writing in college that suggests sexual topics are off limits?
But no, I took the safe way out. I wasn’t exactly lying to her when I suggested ways in which she could steer clear of lewd assaults on her consciousness, but in retrospect I was nevertheless dishonest. Why? Because I maintained the social lie that courses exist to satisfy themselves rather than the experiential needs and interests of real people with real struggles and real minds that are real hungry. The older I get (and there’s not much older left), I find myself choked by the inherent dishonesty of course-level, content-driven boundaries–especially in a writing class. Whether we do it out of a sense of professionalism, or out of fear that we will be criticized by ennui-mad colleagues or administrators who find out our pedagogical indiscretions, or just because we just didn’t think about it, we fail our students when we protect them from themselves. As George Orwell put in his essay “Shooting an Elephant,”
He [the colonial sahib in India] becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
If we as educators don’t risk an honest tack, don’t our faces grow to fit the mask of a gutless professionalism?